First German crowdworker sues over employment misclassification

Bavarian Labor Court rules in favor of platform

In November 2019, the Bavarian Labour Court in Munich heard the first employment misclassification lawsuit in Germany brought by a crowdworker. The crowdworker, with legal support from IG Metall, claimed that the platform had incorrectly classified him as self-employed. He was, he said, in practice treated as an employee. On December 4, 2019, the Court ruled in favor of the platform. The ruling of the Court offers important lessons for platform workers, however, especially regarding the question of employment (mis)classification under German law.

The plaintiff started working as a so-called “microjobber” or “microtasker” in Februrary 2017, doing between 15 and 20 hours’ worth of work per week on one platform. The main service of the platform in question is to have crowdworkers document retail locations – such as gas stations, supermarkets, and specialty stores – with text and photos. The plaintiff earned around 1,750 Euro per month by doing these tasks.

In the beginning, things went well. Early in 2018, the platform operators even wished the plaintiff a happy new year by letter, noting that he was the most prolific crowdworker on the platform, having completed 2,978 tasks in total. “Other workers on the platform want to learn how to do so many tasks as you did in 2017,” the platform operators wrote.

Shortly, though, everything changed. In Spring 2018, the platform claimed that the plaintiff had submitted unusable photos for a task. They sent him an email, saying, “Apparently your understanding of the tasks is quite different from ours. To avoid future disagreements, we will not be offering you any further tasks. We ask you to pay out your current account balance in the app. We will then deactivate and delete your account.”

With the support of IG Metall, the plaintiff sued the platform, alleging that the platform’s claim that he has worked as a self-employed person was false, and that he should in fact have been classified as an employee. The Munich Labor Court ruled otherwise, as did, on appeal, the Bavarian Regional Labor Court in Munich. Christiane Benner, Vice Chair of IG Metall, said, “The ruling is not what we expected. In our view there are clear signs that the plaintiff should have been classified as an employee. We will wait for the written explanation for the ruling – and then decide if we will go before the Federal Labor Court.”

In the oral explanation, the judge noted that:

  • The framework agreement and the platform’s terms of service did not create a legal obligation on the part of the plaintiff to perform work
  • The concrete configuration of the work, in the judge’s view, did not imply an employment relationship. The judge did not see the “level system” used by the platform to incentivize workers to complete more tasks, or the fear of deactivation, as comparable to the legal obligation to work established by a traditional employment relationship.
  • The court did not assess the question of whether each individual task constituted a time-limited employment relationship, because the three-week time limit to contest the termination of such a relationship had already lapsed by the time the plaintiff filed the suit.

Attorney Rüdiger Helm, who represented the plaintiff, noted: “We have learned in this case how important this three-week time limit can be. If you are kicked off a platform [and you want to dispute it], you must act extremely quickly.”